Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Ports, schmorts. It was good week for the Slacker-in-chief

By Eric Mink
Wednesday, Mar. 15 2006

Excuse me if I don't get all teary-eyed about the poor besieged Bush administration in the wake of last week's rescinded Dubai Ports World acquisition of U.S. port operations:

"Setback to Bush on ports deal casts a shadow over his agenda," warned The New York Times. "Bush damaged by political iceberg," declared BBC News. "Port deal's political fallout not over," the Washington Post predicted over the weekend.

Reality check, please.

At the same time that our senators and representatives so bravely thrashed Bush over the all-but-meaningless port business deal, they also handed him the renewal of the USA Patriot Act and killed an investigation into the ongoing National Security Agency spying operation, which breaks the law and violates the Constitution.

Sounds like a pretty good week for a presidency bent on accumulating power and ducking responsibility.

I've heard from a fair number of smart, patriotic people who, frankly, aren't very concerned about Bush's excesses in the national security arena, including the illegal NSA scheme and the ripe-for-abuse Patriot Act. These things strike them as theoretical worries of virtually no relevance to the day-to-day lives of the vast majority of law-abiding Americans. In any case, they reckon, when you're fighting terrorism, better to be overzealous than overly fussy.

It's a fair point, but it ignores the one overriding truth we have learned the hard way about Bush and the incompetents who work for him: They're really not very good at doing anything.

After they took over the White House in 2001, their slacker attitude about al-Qaida helped make 9/11 possible. Their wishful-thinking approach to modern warfare and international relations brought us the catastrophe of Iraq. Their cronyism and disdain for honorable public service contributed to the deadly failures that followed Hurricane Katrina. Their anti-government bias turned the obscenely expensive Medicare drug program into frustrating chaos for seniors and their families.

It's true that some Americans -- maybe even most of us -- are willing to give up some measure of freedom in exchange for greater protection from terrorism. But with Bush and his administration in charge, there's no reason to believe that's what we're getting.

We are, for example, five years into the Bush reign and four-and-a-half years past 9/11. Yet a still-secret study by the Department of Homeland Security, obtained by the Associated Press and reported over the weekend, finds America's ports still highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

The picture is no more reassuring in the area of terrorism prosecutions. This week, a federal judge in Virginia had to decide whether serious errors by government lawyers required her to dismiss the death-penalty case against Zacarias Moussaoui, still the only person ever charged with crimes in connection with the 9/11 attacks. (She wound up disqualifying several witnesses.) Federal authorities jeopardized a different terrorism-related case, as reported last month by KTVT-TV in Dallas, when it mistakenly sent boxes full of jumbled classified files to the defense team.

In fact, it's a reasonable and open question whether the Justice Department, which has become highly politicized under Bush control, has any idea of what it's doing. Dahlia Lithwick, legal correspondent for the online magazine Slate, summarized government bungling in key terrorism cases in a stinging column in February


Given the administration's abysmal track record of performance, it seems highly unlikely that Bush is managing his secret spying programs well. And given Bush's track record for asserting power, logic suggests those programs are far more extensive and invasive than he has admitted.

Bush has claimed that the Constitution grants presidents unlimited power to make war. If he believes that, there is no reason for him to have limited the NSA to foreign-related spying. And if there's nothing more important than preventing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, Bush has an even greater incentive to unleash the NSA to monitor all communications -- here at home, as well as abroad.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a vast government spying development project that Congress thought it had shut down three years ago turns out to be not so shut down after all. Three weeks ago, the respected National Journal reported that elements of the Pentagon's ominous Total Information Awareness program, funding for which Congress cut off in 2003, were transferred and given new names: Advance Research and Development Activity, Information Awareness Prototype, Basketball, Topsail. And where were these projects relocated? The NSA.

"So what?" some of my friends would say. "We have nothing to hide."

Maybe not, but governments make mistakes, this administration makes a lot of them and mistakes have consequences.

Last week, Justice Department inspector general Glenn Fine reported hundreds of instances over the last two years in which the wrong people's e-mails and phone calls were intercepted and conversations were recorded long after warrants had expired. In one instance, Fine reported, the FBI recorded 181 separate phone calls when it only was supposed to get billing records.

Now imagine a mistake involving you. Your employer is secretly ordered by the FBI to hand over all its records about you, put a tap on your work phone and install spying software on your work computer. The feds come up with nothing incriminating, of course, but it's a fair bet the company will never think of you in quite the same way again. A raise? A promotion? A prestigious transfer?

Don't count on it.

You think your political opinions and activities -- left, right or center -- are your business? Recent reports from all over the country -- Florida, California, Colorado, Georgia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere -- document increased surveillance by both civilian and military authorities of even innocuous political activity by American citizens.

In the face of all these developments -- most immediately, Bush's illegal NSA spying program -- last week the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee refused to do its duty. Instead, chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas put the kibosh on any notion of an investigation in exchange for creation of a new subcommittee. Its assignment apparently will be to listen to what the administration chooses to tell it, say OK and then keep its mouth shut.

You have to wonder if there is anything Bush could do that would get Roberts and the other administration chippies on the committee to actually launch an investigation.

Ports, schmorts. Bush, as he often reminds us, is a big-picture guy, and in the big picture, last week was a very good week for the president.

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